Consumer electronics

A Look at How Consumer Electronics and Medical Device Product Development Teams Differ

By Stephanie Van Ness

Consumer electronics and medical device development teams have different priorities. Match your team to your goal.

Today’s consumers have high expectations. Not only do they want products that solve their immediate problems, they want new and innovative products that make their lives easier or better in some way. Manufacturers must keep pace with rising customer expectations and evolving business ecosystems in order to remain competitive.

But, product development is no easy task. And, if we’re talking product development in the medical device arena, where the stakes are highest, the challenges expand exponentially. So, how can manufacturers in both areas conquer these challenges? By starting with a team well-suited for the job at hand.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Consumer electronics and medical devices are two different animals and product development approaches that work for one likely don’t for the other. That’s why assembling the right team is vital. At ICS, where we develop touchscreen-enabled products for both markets — our portfolio spans everything from fitness equipment to proton radiation therapy systems — great attention is paid to putting together a team that fits the project.

I’ll cover some of the qualities important to consumer electronics teams and to medical device teams, as well as highlight some of the most significant differences in their priorities. But, first a quick word about similarities. According to ICS CEO and Founder Peter Winston, who has been on the front lines of software-based product development for nearly 30 years, consumer electronics and medical device teams overlap mostly in the ideation and early R&D phases, particularly concerning market research.

“Using research tools like Voice of the Customer helps many product teams on both sides of the fence identify customer wants and needs at the outset of a development project to ensure the ultimate product is something that will actually be used,” Winston said. “And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a desktop music editor or a fetal-monitoring system.”

Of course, the term “customer” casts a wide net. For a consumer product the customer is typically the end user. That’s not necessarily the case with a medical device where the customer might be the patient receiving treatment, or perhaps the doctor or nurse providing treatment. Still, understanding the needs of customers of all varieties is essential.

Another area with overlap is the desire for innovation. “People don’t want the same old, same old,” Winston said. “They want new ideas, new thinking. But new thinking that satisfies a need. Not pie-in-the-sky innovation for the mere sake of innovation. Getting customer input upfront helps keep manufacturers on the right path.”

The Paths Diverge

While there are other similarities, consumer electronics and medical device development require different approaches. Not only in terms of the specific skill set of team members, but in terms of their individual personalities and the team’s overall sensibilities and priorities.

Fundamentally, developing consumer products is all about urgency. The window of opportunity is open only briefly so speed to market is paramount. Minor glitches can be tolerated because the product lifecycle is short. That’s why companies like Apple expect to release patches and updates almost as soon as they introduce a new device. The company knows fixes are inevitable and so plans for them.

“Consumers want the latest tech, and they prioritize innovation over perfection,” Winston said. “Typically, people are willing to overlook minor defects or deficits in order to get a hot new device — say the latest mobile phone or game or gadget — in their hands as quickly as possible.”

That’s definitely not the case on the medical side.

Because medical devices are often lifesaving, there is no room for error. Perfection is the goal. “Manufacturers can’t put out a device knowing it has a few flaws, to be fixed later,” Winston said. When developing medical devices, speed to market — while still important — takes a back seat to testing, testing and more testing, as well as complying with a slew of stringent regulatory requirements.

In other words, risk management takes on far greater importance in the medical device realm. “When building sensitive medical devices, like the intelligent infusion pump management system we developed for Ivenix, analysis, precision and safety are mission-critical,” Winston said. “While certainly deadlines are important, timelines are typically longer than for consumer products in order to accommodate the heavier testing and compliance requirements.”

Different Challenges Require Different Sensibilities

Successful consumer electronics development demands quick decision making. Product designs are often influenced by fashion, pop culture or the latest trends — aesthetics matter — so market opportunities are fleeting. As a result, development timelines are short. Urgency is prized. That’s one reason Type A personalities — intense, driven, fast-moving — are often drawn to consumer product teams. They love the adrenaline rush.

For medical device teams, caution is more important than speed.

“Yes, speed is important. But, when a device can be the difference between life and death, every precaution must be taken to deliver a product of superior quality,” Winston said. "In this environment, stability, predictability and precision are highly valued. That’s why medical device development teams tend to be highly analytical and more cautious than other types of dev teams," he said. Their focus is safety first so while a device’s appearance is still of critical important to the user experience, it takes a back seat to function.

Match Your Team to Your Priorities

Developing a new product is arduous. Ideating an innovative-yet-saleable product is tough. So is addressing thorny compliance issues and managing risk — not to mention deeply understanding your customer. (In the medical device arena this can be a particularly difficult task, especially if you white label for a manufacturer who then sells the product to a hospital, which then convinces a doctor to use the device to treat his patient. Every stakeholder in this scenario is your customer.)  

To stack the odds in your favor, ensure your development team has not only relevant technical skills but the sensibilities suited to the task at hand. Individual personalities and character traits matter. A crack medical device team accustomed to lengthy periods of meticulous product testing may fail miserably if asked to operate in the aggressive, go-go-go world of consumer electronics. Similarly, a top-performing consumer electronics team may lose focus in the slower-moving but higher stakes medical environment, where extended timelines, heavier emphasis on QA and greater compliance burdens rule.

The takeaway: match your team to your specific challenge. One size doesn’t fit all.

ICS has a lengthy track record in both consumer electronics and medical device development, and has teams experienced in each environment. Thinking of building a new product? ICS can help. To learn more, visit